'Oracy is a crucial skill – we're in danger of producing a generation unable to speak in public'

One English teacher describes how her school has put oracy skills back into the heart of the curriculum – and how the benefits, for both teachers and pupils, have been immeasurable

Yvonne Williams

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With the relegation of speaking and listening to a mere adjunct to English examinations at key stage 4, there is a real danger of focusing too much on written responses to literary and non-literary texts. The curriculum has become so crowded – and data collection so focused on showing “progress” – that there is a very real risk of students across the country wearily pacing a monotonous treadmill of examination-style assignments.  It is too easy to believe that practice exclusively based on the terminal papers will eventually yield results.

Oracy in the new curriculum

Constantly drilling students in how to construct a particular type of answer to a particular command word might eventually improve their performance at this rather limited skill, but at what cost? Any opportunity to try out creative ideas – and any flexibility of response – will be confined to their extended essay answers. And drilling is so boring. Is it really surprising that the take-up for English A level is losing ground against other subjects in the new round of specifications?  

Most worrying of all is that we might produce a generation of students too constrained to speak in public. We need orators for the future, and we should provide genuine opportunities to shape such contributors to society.

Where I teach, the whole student body elects the student leadership team: and the election speeches at yesterday‘s hustings, witnessed by the entire school, were a great opportunity for oracy. All the speakers showed considerable poise, although they must have been nervous. They elicited humour and empathy, pitched their talks well, and even showed enjoyment of their brief moment in the spotlight.  

But a brief moment is often all our students will get in the outside world, when there is only a short time to persuade a receptionist that an elderly relative really does need a home visit from a doctor, to grab a customer’s or sponsor’s interest, to persuade an influential client or politician, or to champion a cause, local or national. Such are the transactions of life. And they require far more than a cursory trot through a written assessment towards the end of a course.

The road to confident speaking and listening

Our commitment to oracy starts from Year 7.  Each January, every student in key stage 3 prepares a talk without visual aids. As we look back on the old year and face a new one, Year 7 students discuss three key events of the past year, Year 8 evaluate the personalities of the old year, and Year 9 compare their personal top three events with the more widely-known ones. The use of research, the links found between events, the shifting perspectives and the practice of making the talk engaging – all are significant learning stages requiring perseverance, independence and creativity.   

In key stage 4, we have chosen to do the iGCSE speaking and listening tests in March each year for Year 11. Although we know that teaching and revision time is tight, that doesn’t mean that one has to be sacrificed for the other. Instead, by way of providing a mock, we get students to take on a revision topic from the literature set texts to present orally to the class, so that learning can be shared with a captive audience and all will feel that they have learned something they needed to know.

Year 10 were offered something even more creative, as they were asked to give a monologue in conjunction with another student from the perspective of Macbeth or Lady Macbeth. To make it more complicated – and to add a touch of humour – the students were also given a news article in which a husband and wife complained about their partner’s preparation for Christmas. It was only a small step away to change the topic from the complaint about Christmas to the preparations for the murder of Duncan.  

The results were excellent. Not only did students enjoy getting their teeth into multi-layered tasks, but they were also naturally collaborative. I was touched to see that two who didn’t normally work together had spent time with each other; and all had thought how their piece might blend with their partner’s.   Such linking is not just about building the soft skills of teamwork, it’s about shaping academic ability to form links, the more sophisticated the better. All of this feeds into the kind of successful thinking that lies behind good essay-writing. And it improves language use for performance and transaction.  

Most importantly, every student will be able at least once every year to take the floor and influence their peers. In the long term, they will benefit enormously from learning how to make presentations and engage their audience.

The benefits for workload

It is clear that promoting oracy is of great benefit to our students: it re-engages and challenges them in new ways, and it helps us as a school to fulfil our mission of shaping articulate citizens of the future. But it was quite by accident that I stumbled on the assessment of oracy as a way in which the English department could reap the rewards of reduced workload.

The performances in themselves are a delight. But as well as that, the three weeks taken across key stages 3 and 4 to introduce the speaking and listening task, set homework and assess the tasks, buy us precious time to focus our marking on the written mock examinations taken in early January.

Because we want students to speak, not to read a prepared speech, we allow them just an index card for notes, and assess the spoken component only. We assess the oral tasks there and then on a sheet on which the criteria are already written out, so the teacher has only to tick the relevant skills, maybe write a short personal comment and give a mark.

This is good practice for all kinds of outcomes, not just the tests in Year 11. Teachers widen their assessment repertoire. Peers also assess and write feedback, which is well-pitched and often astute. The tasks are usually well-received. Very few comments in the student voice questionnaires are negative; most are positive, seeing the value of the exercise and some show a desire to have another go. For students who may struggle with essay-writing, these occasions place them on an equal footing with their peers, and some certainly flourish.

And for the hard-pressed English teacher, there is the rare satisfaction of producing a win-win situation.

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in the South of England.  Her article on Ofqual’s changes to reviews of marking and moderation has been accepted for the Spring edition of The Use of English, the journal of the English Association.

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Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a school in the south of England

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